Hard Questions Are Language Bugs

Thanks to Jessica Taylor for the discussion that was the stem of this article. The opinions here are all mine and I’m sure she’d disagree with some or all of them.

The Hai’Zu

Imagine the Hai’zu people of Stone Age Langong, using a very simple language that might contain only 6 words:

The Hai’zu can coordinate very well using this simple language, Scout comes back to camp and says:

This obviously means “there is an injured stag wandering around the forest, hunters go hunt it”. If they instead said.

This obviously means “there is a tiger around the forest, nobody should go there.

The old shaman can even chip in and say something like:

Indicating that, since it’s a rainy day, so No Sun means “night”, that tigers hunt during the dark too, and nobody should go there at night either, even with torches.

At night a children can ask the Shaman

(the question is implicit from the tone and the children - to - elder relationship)

And the Shaman can say:

Indicating tigers don’t usually hang out in the same spot for more than a day, so it should be safe tomorrow.

The chieftain can assign tasks:

People get that they are supposed to light the pile of wood, take care of the kid, and cook the dead elk.

Granted, the ancient Hai’zu probably had closer to 2000 words, or they got conquered by a neighboring tribe that did, you can only get so far without names for common things, pointing is inefficient, and only being able to do time and weather keeping on a day-by-day basis has limitations.

Still, the Hai’zu can coordinate much better than any living animal using this relatively simple vocabulary, well enough to synchronize hunting, camp maintenance, and caretaking.

Now, if a Hai’zu philosopher is born they might start saying things like:

This is a perfectly valid sentence in Hai’zu’ish but it also makes no sense, if enough people take the philosopher seriously they might start having ideas and concepts about the great gathering in the sky, and have conflicting thoughts about whether “Do” in the sky refers to chasing the sun or having transcendental sex or lying in blissful wait. These questions might come up in the effigies they build to “There Gather Do” or in one of them uttering a sentence like:

Symbolizing the great hunt for the sun their chieftain will lead in the afterlife.

This is surely to cause some polarization as yet another scream.

Indicating the spirits of their ancestors are already in a timeless hunt for the Sun

Again, don’t take the Hai’zu very seriously, if you will demand of me to compose an entire prehistoric language and explain it’s flaws and uses in the span of this article, you’d surely get bored. But grant me that you can have a language which is:

a) Much more scarce than modern ones in terms of words and rules in combining them

b) Very useful, able to maintain coordination between humans

c) Able to ask “philosophical” questions, the sort which don’t have obvious answers that everyone agrees on. And make “philosophical” statements, the sort on which people have to ponder at length and might come up with conflicting interpretations.

Language Is Undefined

This is a fundamental problem of any language, no matter how complex. Indeed, the more complex a language the more statements in that language are going to be nonsensical even if correct based on its rules.

*We needn’t go into anything formal like equating language with a poor form of mathematics than pointing to Godel uncertainty proving that any such systems will contain contradictions. Though it’s probably important to keep in mind that **this property of having a contradictory/undefined/nonsensical set of statements, both theoretically and empirically, extends to any conceptual system we have come up with, be it a formalization of mathematical rules, a programming language or an actual language.*

To see that this is the case in language simply think of some sentences which are syntactically and grammatically correct but make no sense. I’d encourage to come up with your own, here are some off the top of my head:

If you can’t imagine some, open the closest book of poetry.

We can analyze each of these sentences and give reasons for why they are false. We can also imagine insane worlds and reach out for far-off meanings to see how maybe they could be true.

If you can’t imagine insane meanings for the above, open the closest book of poetry interpretation.

But there is no rule that says we should be able to come up with a way to refute any nonsensical sentence. Indeed, given the immense ability of humans to stretch language, I’d be silly to think any sentence can be entirely refuted as nonsensical or not, it’s all a spectrum ranging from very nonsensical to very concrete.

Nor is nonsensical language inherently wrong, indeed, the language of experts often appears to be nonsensical, and it often is nonsensical outside of the very restrictive context in which those experts operate. Similarly, the language of lovers, poets, and friends is often nonsensical and that is precisely what gives it value.

I don’t mean to say that the purpose of language is this or that, indeed, that would be a nonsensical question to ask outside of a logical positivist meeting. However, it is important to note that language has a very important role as a coordination mechanism.

Making Sense Of Coordination

Problems often arise when we try to coordinate people around specific linguistical statements, that make no sense. This is expected since the only way to coordinate people around language is to use reality, the thing language is often describing.

We agree on things like:

Because we can experimentally prove those things to be true, in a way that’s easy and obvious to see by anybody, can be done by anybody.

Also, we have the common sense to understand the limitations of each sentence, “Letting go of a stone in midair results in it falling towards the ground” doesn’t apply on the space station, yet this didn’t generate infinite philosophical debates nor lead to people applying the qualifier “on Earth” when referring to objects that fall. Some people don’t like salty foods, and some “fires” are indeed not that hot.

Out of a long tradition of people more focused on being efficient replication machines than being happy, certain bugs seem to arise. One of them is that we often choose to forget there’s a distinction between language and the real world, that language is both inherently contextual and often says things that are neither true nor false, they are undefined, nonsensical. This doesn’t always happen, but it seems to happen selectively, with reinforcement.

Noticing that language is contextual is especially hard if one always inhibits the same context, and reacts violently to any large changes in context. This violent reaction is often a combination of:

Try to coordinate everybody on a meaning of language that is heavily dependent on the context they inhabit, and you have a problem.

Noticing that language often yields largely nonsensical statements is also particularly hard if you’ve been educated to think the opposite, in a system that is purely conceptual and doesn’t often touch reality. The only way to notice most statements are nonsensical is by jumping from linguistic descriptions of reality to reality. Be that reality your phenomenal experience when sitting with your eyes closed, running through a field, or looking through a microscope.

Try to coordinate everybody on a meaning of language that is nonsensical (independent of context), and you will fail.

The biggest problem here is that we hold statements to be true and, most of us, seem to only be able to accept that they are false when they’ve been replaced by other statements.

If I think X is Y, and I’m a particularly nice and reasonable person, I might be able to accept things like:

But we are unlikely to accept:

Even less likely to accept:

And accepting a statement like:

Is reserved for Lao Tzu, Siddhartha, Alan Turing, and other enlightened demigods. Mortals just can’t accept this.

I’m not sure why our minds just can’t “walk back” on language, it seems like an extremely powerful mechanism. It’s one I’ve tried to cultivate but it seems especially hard, to the point where I myself have accepted that often enough it’s easier to “cover” nonsensical linguistical statements with other less nonsensical statements.

I think there might be useful techniques for doing this, like learning a new language and switching all of your conceptual thinking to that language.

I do think there is a middle path where one can’t quite drop the idea that certain sentences “must” make sense, but they can at least understand that they don’t at some rational level, and stop being so attached to them.

I can think “X is Y” and hear somebody say “X is not Y” or “X doesn’t exist” and instead of arguing, I can remember that “both X and Y don’t exist” and internally hug whatever part of my brain has been scarred by the impression that X and Y are indeed things.


Don’t expect me to try and disprove any real examples of such undefined statements that people argue about there. Looking from the outside such statements often seem to hinge upon entire mountains of nonsense, and, in most people, trying to unskillfully pull the rug from under the mountain would just result in suffering and a defensive reaction.

I know I have such mountains of nonsense and I can’t even excavate those, I don’t have the hubris to think I could be doing that for the mountains of others. However, I have enough hubris to think that I might be able to gesture at the problem here, and maybe you can see it through your own lense, in whatever way makes sense to you.

The problem in itself, remember, is non-conceptual. You can’t come at it linguistically, the proof that statements are nonsensical must come from observing the real world, and it must come often come from seeing absence, not from seeing existence.

A great book that has helped me notice just how wide this problem was, is Meaningness.

David Chapman is, I think, highly skilled at doing this excavation work that I point towards. He tries to do it with subjects that might be very touchy but goes about it in a very roundabout, slow, and deliberate way. The book itself is, I think, intentionally written to be “obvious”, nothing it says is remotely controversial so you might find yourself nodding along and thinking “why the fuck am I reading this, it’s just a book of obvious statements” — The next step one should take is taking those obvious statements, using them to look at reality, and see what conflicting (nonsensical) statements arise in your mind during those moments.

I wish that this final section could be something more than a plug for this book, I certainly think that many other works, from ancient religious scriptures to modern textbooks on computational complexity point towards it, but they don’t seem to be nearly as efficient. If you know of any better techniques I would be eternally grateful for pointers to the works describing them.

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